CALEB EKUBAN has found himself faced with a big responsibility in his sole two Championship starts for Leeds United thus far.
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With zero experience of Championship football and at just 23 years of age, the Italian of Ghanaian descent has been asked to lead the Whites line in the lone striker role.
That, though, is no problem to Ekuban who says he is equally comfortable playing as a sole forward or in a front two.
The targetman was satisfied with his contribution during Saturday’s win at Barnsley but there is plenty left in the locker for a still inexperienced striker who admits: “I hope to be better and offensively I can improve.”
Fourteen weeks after breaking a bone in his foot during his Whites league debut at Sunderland, summer recruit Ekuban was handed his second Championship start for United at Oakwell on Saturday in replacing Kemar Roofe in the lone striker role.
The ability to thrive in that particular position is becoming a must for any Whites forward at present with head coach Thomas Christiansen sticking strongly to the 4-2-3-1 formation that was also deployed so much last year by Garry Monk.
This time last year, Ekuban was plying his trade in the Albanian League as part of a season-long loan away from parent club Chievo Verona with Partizani Tirana.
The forward also had loan spells at Italian outfits FC Sudtirol, AC Lumezzane and Renate as part of his education at Chievo whom United signed the near six-foot-Italian from in July. Different standards of football to the Championship, and Ekuban readily admits he is on a learning curve.
Yet leading the line for the Whites holds no fears for the 23-year-old, even allowing for his inexperience and tender years.
Asked if he was more comfortable playing in the lone striker role or part of a front two, Ekuban reasoned: “I’ve done both. Last year I was playing on my own and I did really well.
“And years ago I was playing with another team-mate next to me so I think I can play in both situations. It doesn’t make too much difference.”
Reflecting on his Saturday start at Oakwell and his subsequence performance, Ekuban beamed: “Saturday was really nice and I really enjoyed it.
“I really just tried to get on the pitch and help my team mates and I think I did a really good job defensively. But offensively I can improve. Of course I also had a great chance to score.
He can even be better. He is really a good player. You can see he is the one that is keeping the job up front and I hope he can continue in this way.
“Pablo (Hernandez) passed me the right ball but I think my first touch was not so good. But I hope to be better in future.”
Ekuban’s frustration at hitting the side netting after being beautifully played in by Hernandez was plain to see.
The infectious wide smile regularly displayed by the new Whites recruit was replaced by a lesser witnessed grimace as the opportunity of a first league goal for Leeds went begging.
Ekuban, though, knows there is so much more to operating effectively in the lone striker role then simply scoring goals and the targetman revealed that Christiansen had purposely been working on having his front man contribute a strong defensive shift.
Ekuban explained: “In the last few weeks he has tried to get the striker to help the defensive line by trying to press upfront and letting the defenders rest or have less risk.
“We are trying to help them in that way and I think Saturday was good.”
With Ekuban leading the line and giving Barnsley’s back four little respite, first-half strikes from Samuel Saiz and Gjanni Alioski capped a very good afternoon for the Whites who made it six points from their last three games. Fellow summer recruit Saiz again proved particularly influential in the win at Oakwell and Ekuban says the Spaniard will improve even further as the season continues.
“He can even be better,” said Ekuban. “He is really a good player. You can see he is the one that is keeping the job up front and I hope he can continue in this way.”
Similarly, Ekuban now hopes he too can continue in the same way by keeping his place in leading the United line.
Yet the Italian will be facing the prospect of even more competition for the role when on loan Hamburg striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga returns from his leg injury. Roofe and young Dutchman Jay-Roy Grot provide further forward alternatives for Christiansen but Ekuban is hoping to keep his shirt and praying that his first league goal for Leeds will not be long in coming.
The targetman netted on his Whites debut back in August when bagging the fourth goal in a 4-1 win at home to Port Vale in the EFL Cup but knows netting in the league will be a different feeling altogether.
“It will be quite amazing,” he smiled. “I hope to get that at Elland Road!”
No time like the present, against fourth-placed Aston Villa on Friday perhaps?
Maybe, and Ekuban is quietly confident of further success.
“They are one of the best teams in the league but we know that we are also a good team,” said Ekuban of Villa, who have won nine of their last 12 games.
“Every match starts with zero-zero so we go in there and just battle and see who will be the best. It will be a very tough game but we are ready.”